It’s a Funeral, Not a Picnic

My kids go to funerals all the time. Death is a part of their childhood in a way that it was not part of mine. Growing up in the U.S., we didn’t talk much about death, as kids we usually didn’t go to funerals, and we certainly didn’t see dead bodies.

When Orla was three years old, my coworker Enrique died suddenly. The girls didn’t know him well, but they were upset. At the wake I told them I was going inside to view the body and asked if they wanted to come. Orla was definitive that yes, she did. She took my hand and had me lift her up to the casket. She peered in, saw that it was indeed Enrique, nodded solemnly for me to put her down, and that was that.

Photo: El Nuevo Diario


Now Eibhlín and Orla are 9 and 11 and recently their best friend’s grandmother died. In the process of her sickness and death, I learned that I should always defer to my daughters’ understanding of what is appropriate in Nicaraguan culture. They are, after all, Nicaraguan.


Their friend’s grandmother was someone whose house Eibhlín and Orla have been in and out of for years, someone who has always invited them to her purísima celebration, and the mother of their favorite teacher. She had been very sick for awhile, and when I gave the girls the news that she was dying, they wanted to go see her. It turned out to be the right thing to do, because s soon as we walked in the gate the girls’ teacher said, “Do you want to see her?” and brought us right over. While we were there a steady stream of teachers and neighbors showed up, all the daughters were in and out of the room and we were told that the sons and grandsons were staying with her during the night.

I am continually floored at how open homes, families and lives are here in Nicaragua. In the U.S. when someone dies, our tendency is to “give the family space” to grieve, so we don’t visit immediately following death and we wait weeks or sometimes months to hold memorial services. Nicaraguans are horrified at this approach – here everyone is notified as soon as there is a death and everyone who is remotely associated with the family is supposed to show up immediately to mourn the death, help prepare the body, hold a wake and then the burial. Because bodies are not embalmed and the weather is hot, the wake is always the same night the person dies and the burial is the following day. It all happens very fast.

Photo: La Prensa

When the grandmother died, we went to the wake straight from work because I was afraid that if we went home to change it would take us too long to get back and the girls would be tired and we’d be there too late at night. On the way, the girls asked questions about what would happen so they would know what to do. I admitted that although I’ve been to lots of wakes and funerals here, I never get it quite right. When we arrived, the girls went straight in to their teacher to give her and her daughter hugs. They asked where they should sit, and found their friend and sat down with her. Once the casket had arrived and the body was prepared, they asked when should they go in and see it? How long should they look? Once we were served coffee and bread I said it was time to go home. They said their goodbyes very politely to all the older neighbors. Once home, they made a list of Lessons Learned – as a family we always try to learn from mistakes and make a note of how to do it better the next time. The girls’ lessons learned from the wake were: take time to change into nicer clothes, bring sweaters for when it cools down later, and expect to stay late into the night.

The next day was the funeral, and my daughters wanted to know what to wear. We chose sensible shoes and dark colors. They went to mass at the church and then prepared to walk from the church to the graveyard. While we waited they looked at everyone else’s clothes with a critical eye and decided they had indeed dressed appropriately. They kept asking: why can’t we drive? I explained that walking together with the family was an important part of going to the funeral. Later they told me that had been the right decision; it felt good to accompany the family, even though it was tiring!

Once we got to the cemetery, we all hung back. In Nicaraguan culture, the graveside is the acceptable time for everyone to totally lose it – wailing, gnashing of teeth and throwing oneself on the grave are all conventional parts the burial ritual. As the women in the family began wailing, Eibhlin and Orla’s friend began crying. They tightened in around her and rubbed her back and comforted her as she cried. Outside the gates of the graveyard we could hear the Sno Cone vender begin ringing his bell.

dscf9340Here I should point out that in Nicaragua there is no situation where it is inappropriate for a Sno Cone vendor to ring his bell – funerals, accidents, even violent protests. Much the same way that the chip van was always first on the scene in a riot during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Sno Cone vendors in Nicaragua never miss an opportunity to sell a raspado.

So as the grieving daughters ratcheted up their wailing, the Sno Cone bell kept ringing. A pair of little girls next to us bought Sno Cones and began jamming the spoon into the ice to mix in the flavors. Stab stab stab ding ding ding waaah wahh waaaah.

I saw Eibhlin and Orla gave the little girls the side eye and my prissy gringa self thought, “See, it is inappropriate to eat Sno Cones at a funeral!” Then they whispered, “Can we get Sno Cones?”

“No you may not,” I said, “it’s a funeral, not a picnic.”

Stab stab stab, ding ding ding, waaah waaah wahhh…

“I think our friend would feel better if she had a Sno Cone.”

“No, we are not getting a Sno Cone.”

Stab stab stab, ding ding ding, waaaah waaah waaah.

“Are you sure? Everyone feels better with a Sno Cone.”


Once the wailing had died down, their friend went to get a Sno Cone and they looked at me. “Yes,” I sighed, “you may go get a Sno Cone.”

Off they ran. – Becca


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